In 2011, The Weeknd, the moniker of 23-year-old Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye, emerged shrouded in a carefully cultivated aura of mystique. As he released his debut trilogy of mixtapes in 2011 (the three tapes have since been packaged and released as Trilogy last year), Tesfaye refused to give any interviews and even barely allowed his face to appear in promotional materials, his visage seemingly always obscured by smoke or shadows. Although he now claims that this was merely the manifestation of his own camera shyness, it’s impossible to deny that these tactics were integral in stirring up a still-churning hype storm that has brought Tesfaye critical acclaim and a slew of high-profile collaborations. But alas, it was impossible for him to sustain the enigma forever. After a year of worldwide touring, The Weeknd has returned with his first non-mixtape release, Kiss Land, an album that — to use an image that would surely be endorsed by Tesfaye’s publicist — sees the singer stepping out of the darkness and revealing himself in the warm, nocturnal glow of flickering neon lights.
Indeed, the mystery behind The Weeknd has all but vanished: from the album’s cover to its numerous references to the singer’s experiences while touring behind Trilogy, Kiss Land is fundamentally rooted in Tesfaye’s actual existence in ways that his prior work refused to be. And yet, even though this album seems far more intrinsically linked with the physicality of its author than the vast majority of Trilogy did, Tesfaye remains committed to exploring the same graphically lascivious lyrical themes as his previous records. Therein lies the central problem with this album (and increasingly, it would seem, with the entirety of Tesfaye’s catalog): one can no longer chalk up the disturbing, predatory sexuality of this music to any sort of fictional, constructed enigma. As a listener, this simple fact means that — despite any of its musical, non-lyrical merits (of which, admittedly, there are many) — it is uncomfortable and even frequently unpleasant to attempt to engage with this album.
The flaws and triumphs that lie at Kiss Land’s core can be heard on the title track. Tesfaye’s lyrics here are mostly crippled by their obsessive focus on soulless, shallow depictions of sexual objectification, cash-stacking, and drug use (I won’t quote any directly, but the last verse is particularly cringe-inducing in its vividness). His now-trademark references to these activities are problematic not just because all remaining vestiges of Tesfaye’s enigma have been stripped away, but also because these episodes fail to interrogate the deeper implications or nuances of such behavior; the singer still seems to be relying on such images for mere superficial shock factor. With that being said, however, the song actually has an unexpected but welcome moment of emotional clarity when Tesfaye opens up about the effects of life on the road: “I got a brand new place, I think I’ve seen it twice all year/ I can’t remember how it looks inside, so you can picture how my life’s been.” And on a structural level, the song is also structurally interesting, unfolding in a binary form that pits the dreamy, twinkling atmospherics and pitch-shifted vocal hook of the first few minutes against a woozy, sinister electronic vibe that kicks in around the halfway mark.
That latter fact is mostly true of the album as a whole: despite Tesfaye’s frequently problematic lyrical presence, the production is uniformly lush and immersive. “Professional,” the first (and strongest) song on the record, bathes the listener in warm layers of synthesizers, strings, and Tesfaye’s own multitracked vocals, outlining a harmonic progression that ranks as one of the most explicitly beautiful moments so far in the young singer’s oeuvre. The high level of musicality in the production continues for the next three songs, a trilogy of tracks that feels incredibly cohesive in its persistent use of mechanistic, somewhat deconstructed rhythms. Interestingly, an aesthetic line can perhaps be drawn between the rhythms on those songs and the recreation of the beat from Portishead’s “Machine Gun” that forms the backbone for the next track, “Belong to the World.” Unfortunately, the song is — at least in terms of production quality — the biggest misstep on the entire album: overwrought string parts and vocal harmonies are layered on top of one another in a thick sonic stew that feels thoroughly antithetical to the sort of atmospheric minimalism that has defined The Weeknd’s best work.
So, while the songwriting doesn’t always remain quite as tight as those first four songs — in particular, the last two tracks feel distinctly aimless when compared with the focused opening stretch — the level of detail and compositional creativity on display in Kiss Land’s production ends up being its saving grace. Still, Tesfaye’s refusal to either develop or qualify his depraved lyrical conceits remains a major barrier. The initial mystique of The Weeknd is gone, and we’re now confronted with the work of a young man who possesses an impressive voice, an incredible ear for production, and a complete lack of purpose in his confrontational, intensely graphic lyrical obsessions. In this way, Tesfaye’s work here is rather inscrutable, a difficult mess to make sense of — and even more difficult to sincerely engage with. I think I’ll end my review, then, with his words, a thought-provoking couplet from the outro of the album’s title track: “This ain’t nothing to relate to/ Even if you tried, you tried, you tried.”